Early in 2020, feeling burned out from decades of social change work and grieving multiple crises in our environment and society, I stepped away from an organization I’d been directing and began what I called a six-month healing sabbatical. My goal was to regain a sense of resilience and wellbeing, as well as to address some health challenges. I was feeling that all my efforts to “save” the world had failed, and I needed to rebalance by taking some time to “savor” the world in new ways. In other words, I sought to deepen my sense of presence and to practice living gratefully.
The first month of my sabbatical was busy — visiting aging parents, catching up with friends, launching into all the big projects around the house, looking at workshops to sign up for, and beginning to make travel plans for the spring and summer. I was not slowing down. I was not tending to my body and heart. I was not feeling more resilient. I was simply shifting the pressures of professional work to the pressures of a long list of other tasks and goals. I remember thinking “I wish the world would slow down so I can get some rest.”
A short time later, Covid-19 arrived on the scene and all the travel, workshops, and social plans vanished overnight. While many people around the world were suffering painful disruptions and difficulties, others were discovering new hobbies and learning to be with themselves in new ways.
Never before had I listened so deeply to the wisdom of the natural world. I felt incredibly nourished by the beauty and diversity blooming all around me.
I began spending a lot more time outdoors, in the solace of nature. Delighting in each new type of wildflower poking through the moist spring soil, I started learning the names of the trees, grasses, and flowers growing in my neighborhood. Never before had I listened so deeply to the wisdom of the natural world. I felt incredibly nourished by the beauty and diversity blooming all around me. I made little bouquets that opened my heart.
One day in early May, a friend sent me a link to morningaltars.com. Seeing Day Shildkret’s website sharing his nature art took my breath away. Something lit up inside of me and sparked my curiosity — what kinds of mandalas and earth altars might I create myself with mother nature’s bounty?
I assembled my palette — some acorns and lichen, along with a few wild iris flowers — and sat down to create. It was a meditative experience placing the first acorn, and the next, and letting the patterns emerge. My nervous system settled. My heart opened. I felt so grateful for the simple act of co-creating art with the natural world. I snapped a picture and then walked away — such a good practice for someone like me who sometimes has a hard time letting go of things.
My nervous system settled. My heart opened. I felt so grateful for the simple act of co-creating art with the natural world.
I cleared a new patch of earth, gathered a different palette, and created another earth altar. Each of the following days, through the entire summer, I created at least one new altar — in a park, in the woods, in the weedy parking strip on my street. I began texting images I snapped to friends and family, and everyone seemed to love them. Buoyed by feedback about how healing and nourishing the images were for others, I began sharing them on social media. This was just before George Floyd’s murder. I wondered whether it was appropriate to continue to share pictures of flowers when my social media feeds were filled with both heart-wrenching and inspiring images of social uprisings around the world. But the messages I received from multiple activists was that yes — sharing beauty is so needed right now. So I persisted through the summer.
When my community was recovering from a devastating fire, which displaced thousands of people in September 2020, some friends and I organized a community resilience event bringing together about 30 people to create a large (20’x20’) earth altar in a charred field near where the fires began in Ashland, Oregon. It was a magical experience which continued to spiral through our community via an Earth Altars art exhibition called Resilience & Refuge which raised money for fire relief and rebuilding efforts.
I am so in love with this planet, more than ever before, as I get to know the names of what’s growing all around me. I walk through the world seeing color and shape and possibility everywhere.
What started as a “hobby” for my own healing and resiliency turned into something that could soothe and inspire others. It has connected me so much more deeply with the natural world and with my sense of place. I am so in love with this planet, more than ever before, as I get to know the names of what’s growing all around me. I walk through the world seeing color and shape and possibility everywhere.
I am grateful every day for this new way of seeing my environment. Instead of fixating on the bare tree branches and lamenting the lack of colorful leaves and flowers, I am delighted as I pick up fallen pine cones, pluck red berries off the holly bushes and arbutus trees, and carefully clip the prickly dead thistles from their stems. I am grateful for each season’s offerings.
If you’d like to explore creating your own earth altar or nature mandala, here are a few suggestions:
- Wander and gather: Whether in a park, your own yard, or around your neighborhood, take your time to wander and look around you with new eyes. Take in the colors, textures, and patterns all around. Look up into branches and look down onto the ground. Pick up, gather, and clip things that speak to you. Gather them in a basket or bag.
- Choose your ‘canvas’: Find a patch of dirt, or a stump, or any other background you wish to use for your altar. You can even work indoors if you prefer – using some soil you bring in from outside, or sand, or even a beautiful piece of fabric as your canvas. Even a plate or platter can work beautifully.
- Settle and begin: I often begin by placing something in the center and then working outward from there. You can also start with framing the outer edges of your altar and working inward. See what patterns emerge. You can create a mandala by placing items in concentric rings from the center to the outer edges. You can play with diamonds, squares, circles, hexagrams, stars, or any other shapes you wish. You can go for symmetry or not.
- Complete: As you continue to place items, building your earth altar, pay attention to when it feels done. Take a break. Sit with it. Ask whether it wants anything else. Sometimes I don’t notice when enough is enough, and end up taking some things away until it feels “just right.” Enough, but not too much.
- Take a picture: If you wish, take a photo. While the art is impermanent, the image you snap can be enjoyed in the future or shared with others. I would love to see your creations! Please feel free to describe your experience below and/or post photos in the Gratitude Lounge.
To view a beautiful 4-minute film by Katie Teague chronicling Laura’s story, see Earth Altars – Origin Story.
Send an Earth Altars eCard
Share a message of gratefulness with a friend or loved one by sending a free eCard! Laura recently partnered with us to design five gorgeous eCards featuring some of her earth altars. Laura’s designs are featured in the Thank You, Love & Friendship, Inspiration, and Get Well categories. You can find all of our eCards here.